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Archive for Thursday, March 13, 2003

Kidnapped girl found safe after nine months

March 13, 2003

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— Elizabeth Smart, the 15-year-old girl who vanished from her bedroom nine months ago, was found Wednesday walking down a suburban street with a drifter who had briefly worked at the family's home.

The man was taken into custody, and the teenager was whisked away for a reunion with her jubilant family.

"Miracles do exist," said Tom Smart, the girl's uncle.

Elizabeth was returned home about 9:20 p.m. CST in an unmarked police van. She did not speak to reporters as she rushed inside the house. Relatives said Elizabeth was in good condition and had talked with police about her ordeal.

"All of the children out there deserve to come back to their parents the way Elizabeth has come back to us," father Ed Smart said as he burst into sobs during a celebration at his home.

He added: "I don't know what she's gone through and I'm sure she's been through hell. I just know that she's a part of our family, she's loved and we love her so much."

The police offered no motive or details of where the teenager had been since she vanished in June. Authorities reported Wednesday that employees at a grocery store near San Diego said they had seen the drifter in recent weeks. The Smarts had released a sketch of the man last month.

Police were tipped off by members of the public who spotted the drifter on a street in Sandy, 20 miles south of Elizabeth's home in Salt Lake City. The drifter, known as Emmanuel, a woman believed to be his companion and Elizabeth were all wearing wigs when they were stopped, authorities said.

Relatives of Emmanuel, whose real name is Brian Mitchell, have described him as a self-appointed prophet for the homeless who lived in a teepee in mountains outside the city. He was hired by the Smarts in November 2001 to work on their roof. Elizabeth disappeared seven months later.

Smart

Smart

Held against her will

Mitchell and the second suspect, identified as Wanda Barzee, were in custody. No charges were filed, but Salt Lake City Police Chief Rick Dinse said authorities were convinced Elizabeth had been kidnapped.

Asked whether he believed Elizabeth was held against her will, he said: "At this point, yes, I do."

A Smart family spokesman, Chris Thomas, said Elizabeth apparently had no chance to escape.

"She said there was no way, she had two people with her at all times," he said.

Police stopped Mitchell and the others after receiving calls a minute apart from Rudy and Nancy Montoya and Anita and Alvin Dickerson. Both couples had spotted the trio carrying bedrolls and bags as they walked down the street.

Anita Dickerson, thinking the man resembled the suspect, left her car and looked him in the eye. She thought Elizabeth was an older woman wearing a scarf.

"Lots of people had to see them, they just didn't put two and two together," Alvin Dickerson told The Associated Press.

High-profile cases

Elizabeth's disappearance was part of a frightening string of incidents involving children last year that included the slayings of 7-year-old Danielle van Dam of San Diego and 5-year-old Samantha Runnion of Orange County, Calif.

News that Elizabeth was alive touched off a celebration in front of the Smarts' home in affluent Federal Heights, with neighbors and members of the family's Mormon ward arriving with blue and yellow balloons.

"How can I even talk? This is such a miracle," said Lynne Godfrey, 57, a neighbor. "I had given up hope -- I mean, where would she have been? Who would have taken care of her for a year?"

Last month, the Smarts released a sketch of a clean-shaven Mitchell and asked for help in finding him. As recently as Tuesday, they criticized police for not devoting enough attention to finding the former handyman.

Mitchell's sister called authorities with his identity after the news conference. The man's stepson, Mark Thompson, also gave investigators photos of a long-haired, bearded Mitchell and said his stepfather was "capable" of kidnapping a child.

According to Thompson, Mitchell believes he is a prophet who needs to preach to the homeless. Mitchell was often seen panhandling and preaching to the homeless in downtown Salt Lake City before Elizabeth's disappearance.

Employees of a supermarket about 15 miles east of San Diego remember seeing a man fitting Mitchell's description, San Diego County Sheriff's Lt. Guy Chambers said Wednesday. They saw him several times recently, but he was always alone.

Elizabeth's mother, Lois Smart, has said she met Mitchell downtown when he asked for money. She gave him $5 and hired him to help her husband work on the roof. He worked for about five hours and the family didn't see him again.

Elizabeth was 14 when she vanished early on the morning of June 5. Her 9-year-old sister, Mary Katherine, said Elizabeth was taken by a man who may have gotten into the house by cutting a window screen near the back door. The little girl pretended to be asleep, and she said the gunman threatened to hurt Elizabeth if she didn't keep quiet.

Tracking leads

When they released Mitchell's sketch last month, Elizabeth's parents said Mary Katherine had come to them recently to say "Emmanuel" bore some resemblance to the kidnapper.

After Elizabeth was found, relatives called Mary Katherine a hero.

"It is truly a miracle to me that she was able to come up with him," Ed Smart said. He had earlier expressed "frustration" at public statements made by police dismissing Mitchell as a potential suspect.

Police said they followed up more than 16,000 leads from the public besides those they came up with themselves.

For months, the top suspect was Richard Ricci, a handyman who once worked in the Smart household. He insisted he had nothing to do with the kidnapping, and he died Aug. 30 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while in prison on a parole violation.

On Wednesday, the family renewed its call for a national "Amber Alert" system to swiftly notify the public of missing children through the media.

Children's advocates were elated by the good news.

"We are very, very relieved," said Marilyn Ward, director of Child Search, a national missing children center based in Houston. "This should help the cause of missing children everywhere. We are thankful she's alive. It gives hope to people to never give up."

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